Sunday, February 06, 2005

Losing Intelligence

By Melissa Boyle Mahle

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2005

During the 9/11 Commission and the Congressional intelligence reform hearings, one senior government official after another stood before the American people and declared that 9/11 was a wake up call to do intelligence better. Then-National Security Advisor Rice told the 9/11 Commission, "Bold and comprehensive changes are sometimes only possible in the wake of catastrophic events – events which create a new consensus that allows us to transcend old ways of thinking and acting." Many claimed the intelligence community fixes were already in the works, and no future legislation was required. Acting DCI McLaughlin reassured the Senate Government Affairs committee that "...a Community that does not share information or work together, a Community of turf-conscious people competing for influence—that is not the Community I lead today." It was with the utmost reluctance that the position Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was created to coordinate and give strategic direction the unruly Intelligence Community. As a former CIA field operative who spent many years in the back alleys of the Middle East, I listened to this national dialogue carefully. I was hopeful it would bring much needed changes to the spy business, but skeptical at the same time because I knew how deeply rooted bureaucratic interests were.

As news leaks out that the Pentagon has set up a new shop to run human intelligence operations, such as sending covert teams into Iran to collect information on suspected nuclear weapons development sites, a familiar strain can be heard: turf war. The Pentagon is moving into CIA territory, recruiting and running clandestine agents around the globe. We are told that this is good because the Pentagon's new Strategic Support Branch provides Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld an independent espionage branch—one that can recruit anybody as it is not burdened by Congressional oversight or scout targets in hostile territory without prior authorization by the National Security Council. The chorus from Pentagon supporters is predictable; we have to do it because the CIA is too dysfunctional and risk averse.

This is all nonsense. However, it should scare us because it demonstrates that nothing has been fixed.

The 9/11 intelligence failure was the product of the Intelligence Community's inability to fuse capabilities. When the CIA declared war on al-Qa'ida in 1998, the Pentagon declined to join in on the effort. The Generals saw no benefit to "pounding sand" in Afghanistan to support a CIA operation. When the CIA identified al-Qa'ida terrorists in a planning meeting in Malaysia, CIA officers did not reach out to the FBI to bring them in on the operational details to bridge the foreign/domestic divide, despite the knowledge that one of the terrorists carried a passport with a valid US visa. No, the CIA had to protect sources and methods and limit operational details to those who had a "need to know". And the FBI, equally insular and unwilling to share, let 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaykh Muhammad slip away in 1995 because listening to CIA advice challenged FBI authority and did not jive with the "FBI way." Despite warnings that the terrorist would be warned off by officials in the host government, the FBI was in a hurry and simply disinclined to work together in a clandestine snatch operation. I should know; I was there, completely sidelined as the terrorist evaded capture.

We should not be asking why the Pentagon has a new spying operation. We should be asking how this operation is integrated into other collection efforts afoot. Does the Intelligence Community need two military HUMINT services? How do they differ and how does one add to other, or to the CIA capabilities? Are operations coordinated and deconflicted so that operators and agents do not trip over each other or inadvertently expose the other, or in the worse cases, provide false confirmation to intelligence reporting? Let us not forget the circular reporting on Iraqi WMD. Given the scarcity of resources, in terms of trained HUMINT operators, equipment and cold cash, is this a rational and effective use of capabilities? Is our political leadership in firm control by providing strategic leadership so that if there is operational exposure, the leadership is prepared to stand before the Nation to explain why the methods were justified?

It is possible that these questions have been asked. However, because the language of turf wars has resurfaced, I doubt they have been sufficiently addressed, let alone fully answered. Senators Collins and Lieberman, the authors of the National Intelligence Reform legislation, must also have their doubts, since they are calling upon Rumsfeld to explain whether the Strategic Support Branch is consistent with the new intel reform legislation. If reform is to be real and systematic, it is time to move beyond the old think and demonstrate through deeds that we are indeed implementing a winning strategy for intelligence.

And, by the way, why has there been such a long delay in naming a candidate for the Director of National Intelligence who is supposed to champion our Intelligence Community to work together and to work smarter?

Melissa Boyle Mahle is a former CIA operations officer and the author of Denial and Deception: An Insider's View of the CIA from Iran-Contra to 9/11 (Nation Books 2005).

Email your comment or query to Ms. Mahle by clicking here.

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